The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
ALMOST a quarter of a century after it was originally released, this seminal American shocker has been cleared by the British censor and given a cinema certificate.
The uncut version of director Tobe Hooper’s visceral classic is currently doing the rounds, and retains much of its power and deliberate unease.
Loosely based on the activities of 1950s necrophile Ed Gein, the killer and cannibal who also inspired Robert Bloch’s Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre centres on a bunch of teenagers who are butchered one-by-one by a family of freaks who rob graves, decorate their shack with human bones and, presumably, eat the people they slaughter like pigs.
The film features the unforgettable character of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a chainsaw-wielding maniac who wears a mask of human skin over his face and communicates in a series of pig squeals, and Marilyn Burns as the sole survivor who witnesses the full horror of her friends’ deaths.
Hooper’s film, which he co-wrote with Kim Henkel, is an intelligent and nightmarish chiller. As the forerunner of the stalk-and-slash cycle of the late 1970s and early ‘80s which spawned Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, it is genuinely frightening, relying not so much on gore as a cloying and claustrophobic sense of unease.
The chainsaw killings, like the infamous ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, are never seen on camera. Hooper uses back shots and suggestion to make audiences believe they are witnessing the dismemberment of a corpse. In fact it is never seen.
But what is seen is a deliberate and systematic series of murders in which the victims, unlike modern horrors, are innocent. They have simply strayed into the wrong place and pay with their lives. There are no judgements made here. They are merely victims used to move the plot forward.
Four images remain burned into the consciousness: the opening of the film, with a freshly disinterred corpse strapped to a gravestone; the killing of a young man, smashed on the head with a sledgehammer and slaughtered like an animal; a gruesome dinner party; and a young woman impaled on a meat hook.
What makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a classic of its genre is not the scenes highlighted above, but the fact that as a horror movie it has never been equalled. Until 1968, and the emergence of films like Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby and, later, The Exorcist, horror movies had been cosy little affairs.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ended all of that. It acted as an emetic to audiences around the world, and retains that feeling today. It is grim, unrelenting, cruel and macabre. In fact, it is an example of pure horror on a grand scale.
Hooper relies not on the performances of his actors but on the look and feel of the film, to create his menace. He puts a great deal of effort into design and atmosphere, while the script merely provides an anchor for what is largely an image-led movie.
For today’s audiences brought up on movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, the absence of any tongue-in-cheek humour in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will be as shocking as the film’s subject matter. There is no laughter in it, nor is there redemption or a saviour for the victims.
The film was submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for a cinema certificate in 1975 but was rejected on the grounds of its subject matter, which depicted the terrorisation of women.
That it has been released speaks volumes for the BBFC, but the film is as unsettling as it ever was. It remains a piece of ground-breaking cinema, and one which still leaves the mouth dry with fear.